The Importance of Zadie Smith

I fell in love with Zadie Smith, the writer, with her very first book that I read. It was On Beauty. A book which in all fairness wasn’t an original story, as it was loosely based on E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End. I didn’t know it back then. And when I finally read that one, I still loved On Beauty more. Since then she’s one of the few writers I have been stalking [1], literally, I mean. I mean, not literally. Literarily. But there is no such word. Long story short, I was eagerly waiting to lay my hands on Smith’s latest book, as soon as it was announced, having already consumed all her previous novels, and an excellent essay collection “Changing My Mind”.

The novel Swing Time takes its title from an eponymous 1936 musical. At the heart of the novel though, are, like any Zadie Smith novel, relationships. This time, between two girls growing up in the London’s housing project, the unnamed narrator, and her friend Tracey; and then as their paths diverge, between the narrator and Aimee, an older singer/celebrity.

The two girls, who have come together thanks to their love for dancing, aren’t really rivals in that department because while Tracey has natural talent for dancing, and looks like is destined for big things, the narrator has doesn’t have any gift, rather is born with a flat foot, and at the very start, the dance teacher has gently but unequivocally made it clear what she cannot achieve with it. But while the friendship flourishes based on this common love, it’s not a relationship between equals, and the narrator is under the spell of a confident and willful Tracey.

In fact this power equation doesn’t change even with Aimee, for whom the narrator starts working for as an assistant, after  a rather disastrous first  meeting. Ironically she is chosen to work for Aimee for speaking her own mind, not caring for her celebrity status.

The story moves from London, to US, to Africa and is structurally Smith’s most complex plot till date, as we move between different timelines, and different geographies, having to hop on and off different trains, rather suddenly, yet smoothly. In terms of characterization, Aimee comes up as a bit of caricature, or a collage of different contemporary artists, and their eccentricities. And the novel suffers in terms of Smith’s primary competency of sketching the characters through their interactions with each other, one on one, mostly, in those parts with Aimee in the picture. But then again, large part of this timeline is with Aimee only as a ghost figure, as the narrator explores life in a small African village while setting up and monitoring a school for young girls, a pet project of Aimee for a brief time.

Arguably, Smith has achieved so much with two of her first three novels — a brilliant debut in White Teeth, and a rich and complex On Beauty — that she is always going to be judged for what she didn’t write. And somewhere, she seems conscious of it in both NW, and Swing Time, trying to do more than the kind of storytelling that her first three books do so well. But I for one am not complaining. Because to an extent this started at On Beauty itself. Only it does the tightrope walking between story telling and philosophizing/cultural-dissection so well that it seems easy enough to repeat, especially for some like her. But of course, it’s enormously difficult. Especially with weight of expectations on a relatively young shoulders. And yet Zadie Smith does it well, again and again.

On the backdrop of the not-so-linear stories of Swing Time, are nuanced explorations into various tricky human subjects – racism, identity, privilege, ambition, friendship, philanthropy and cultural appropriation, dysfunctional homes and virtual homelessness, hurt and shame … To even conceive of an edifice that could hold all this together is a itself a challenge beyond many. That Zadie Smith does take that challenge, again and again, is why she is such an important writer to have among us.


[1] The term “stalking” in this context is not mine, but a friend on twitter used it to denote my excessive obsession with David Foster Wallace. When I complimented him for that term, he said it was used by his friend who happened to be a self-confessed DFW stalker. Incidentally the other writers (apart from Zadie Smith and DFW) I’ve been stalking are: Orhan Pamuk, Amitav Ghosh, Alexander McCall Smith, Hermann Hesse, and Umberto Eco.

 

 

 

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